Edinburgh Research Explorer

Prof Tara Spires-Jones

Personal Chair of Neurodegeneration

Profile photo
Phone: 01316511895

Willingness to take Ph.D. students: Yes

Education/Academic qualification

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), University of Oxford
Genetic and epigenetic interactions in activity-dependent cortical plasticity. Accepted by the University of Oxford (Bodlean library) December 2003.
Master of Science, University of Oxford
Bachelor of Arts, The University of Texas at Austin
French (honors)
Bachelor of Science, The University of Texas at Austin
Biochemistry (honors)


Tara Spires-Jones runs a research group studying brain changes in ageing and neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.  Her laboratory studies the synaptic connections between neurons, which in healthy brain allow learning and memory. The goal of the group is to understand the mechanisms of synapse degeneration in order to develop treatments that will promote recovery of brain function.  Dr Spires-Jones received her PhD from the University of Oxford and was an Assistant Professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School before returning to the UK to join the University of Edinburgh in 2013. 

Academic history

◦  University of Edinburgh - Personal Chair of Neurodegeneration, Deputy Director Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences, UK Dementia Research Institute Programme Lead

◦  University of Edinburgh - Interim Director Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems 2016 - 2017

◦  University of Edinburgh - Chancellor’s Fellow and Reader 2013 - present

◦  Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital - Instructor (2006-2011); Assistant Professor (2011-2013)

◦  Postdoctoral training in imaging Alzheimer’s disease models with Prof Brad Hyman at MGH from (2004-2006)

◦  DPhil at the University of Oxford with Prof Colin Blakemore and Dr Anthony Hannan studying environmental influences on synapse development and degeneration (1999-2004)

◦  Winner of a Marshall Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom 1999

◦  Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Bachelor of Arts in French at the University of Texas at Austin (1994-1999)



Neuroscience Honours - Neurobiology of Cognition 4th year elective - Course Organiser

Neuroscience Honours - 21st Century Challenges lecture


MSc by Research in Integrative Neuroscience - Exam board member

PhD student supervision and thesis committee member


Current Research Interests

My research focuses on the mechanisms and reversibility of neuronal degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease and ageing.  We hypothesize that the degeneration of synapses, the connections between neuronal cells in the brain, causes memory impairments and that targeting the proteins that cause synaptic degeneration will allow recovery of cognitive function. Previous work from our group has shown that both of the proteins involved in the neuropathological lesions in Alzheimer’s (amyloid beta and tau) contribute to synapse loss in Alzheimer’s disease, and further that reducing the levels of soluble amyloid beta or tau prevents synaptic degeneration and improves memory in disease models. These experiments indicate that the plasticity of synapses will allow recovery after treatments, giving hope for some functional recovery in patients if we can develop therapies that remove the toxic protein species from the brain.

For our experiments, we apply high-resolution imaging techniques, including multiphoton imaging and array tomography, to examine the structure and function of synapses in healthy and diseased brain.  Multiphoton microscopy allows imaging of synapses over time to determine the time-course of disease processes and allows for imaging the brain before and after treatments to test candidate therapeutics.  Array tomography is a post-mortem imaging technique involving high-throughput imaging of thousands of synapses to determine whether disease-related proteins are associated with synapse shrinkage and loss.  We have accumulated the world’s first brain bank of human tissue prepared for the array tomography technique, which we are using to investigate the relationship between synaptic changes and dementia.



DPhil Neuroscience

University of Oxford


MSc Neuroscience

University of Oxford


BS (honors) Biochemistry

University of Texas at Austin


BA (honors) French

University of Texas at Austin




Research Interests

My research focuses on the mechanisms and reversibility of synaptic and neuronal degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease, other degenerative brain diseases, and ageing.  


My research in a nutshell

Memory is made possible by the ability of synapses, the connections between neurons in the brain, to change in response to environmental inputs.  In dementia, memory declines because synapses and neurons become dysfunctional and die.  In fact, loss of synapses is a strong predictor of dementia in Alzheimer patients. The goal of our research is to understand why synapses and neurons degenerate in order to develop effective strategies to treat the dementia and other brain diseases.

Research activities & awards

  1. Neuroscience models: choose your dimension New types of 2D and 3D brain models capture more physiology.

    Activity: OtherTypes of Public engagement and outreach - Media article or participation

  2. Alzheimer's Research UK Policy Report Advisor

    Activity: ConsultancyProviding oral or written evidence for non-academic board, committee, working group or advisory panel

  3. Scottish Science Advisory Council: Reaction to the UK Government Office for Science Foresight report “Future of an Ageing Population”

    Activity: ConsultancyWork on advisory panel to industry or government or non-government organisation

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